"The peace, when it comes, must last for many, many years. We do not want to have to do this thing all over again in another fifteen or twenty years. If that is to be the case, [their] power must be irretrievably crushed. This is the end we must attain if we have the will and guts to see it through."
-- General Arthur Currie, Commander of the Canadian Corps, 1919.
“Now!” Argus McCall whispered to Jason Regis, firing a salvo into the glowing sphere. The adamantium shells hit with uncommon precision; their explosive rounds creating a wall of flame in the small space. The Imperial Bodyguard was still on the ground, knocked over from the reappearance of the Orb, and barely protected from the holocaust unleashed against them.
In seconds, the sphere collapsed, and the original Vin Dane was knocked to the ground. The new Vin Dane—Scyr in Orb form—simply smiled at the newcomers to his apotheosis. Lifting up a finger to them, he waggled it down the hall and said, “Tsk, tsk. Naughty.”
The Imperial troopers immediately grabbed their Emperor, dragged him behind their armored wall, and brought up their weapons to take on the new threat. Already, though, Vin Dane was suffering… becoming darker, less human. His wife Miranda cradled him and tried to reverse the damage, but her magick failed her. “Vin? Vin?! Can you hear me?”
“Mmmmmiiiiiiirrrrrr…” escaped the Horadrim’s lips, already stretching into mandibles. His fading humanoid form was shaking violently as it failed. His natural, stranger alien form had already started to present itself.
Scyr felt, but didn’t really process, the blows from hundreds of projectiles slamming into his form. The Caal lifeform had been used to the frailties of flesh for years, but this… this was not flesh, the alien knew, and simply walked forward into the line of warriors.
The Imperial bodyguards, lacking their own magick, were no slouches in hand-to-hand combat. Scyr felt himself woefully unprepared to combat them, and was knocked down by a horde of bodies. But the Caal had access to a form that transcended patternistic magick. Using the Orb, he formed his hands into spikes and punched through the power armor of the bodyguard. Slowly, systematically, he literally tore himself out of the pile of elite troopers, until he managed to get to his feet…
…only to have two hundred pounds of werewolf slam into him. Regis was in Crinos form, forcing the false emperor back down to the ground, his claws ripping into Scyr’s body—but the wounds closed as quickly as he could make them. Jason roared with fury, only a second ahead of Scyr, who was trying desperately to escape the battle that threatened his new form. Scyr used his spiked arms against the werewolf, but all he could do was wound his sides, which healed as fast as the Caal’s. Forcing Regis to trip over the piled bodies of the Imperial Bodyguard bought Scyr enough time to step back and rebuild his new form.
Then more bullets flew into his back. Scyr turned to see Fialla Spencer holding her .177 Piccone plasma rifle, the barrel still smoking from the heat of the bolts, as she loaded a new clip into it.
Scyr was annoyed. “Did you really think bullets would…?”
His diatribe was cut off by Regis tackling him from behind. Scyr tried to slam the werewolf into the walls, but Jason was faster, stabbing him over and over again, keeping the Caal off balance. In his mind’s eye, Scyr summoned the Lady of the Lake; the spirit of the Orb inside him. “Help me defeat them!” her new master demanded.
The Lady simply smiled, not really leaning against the wall, since she wasn’t really present in the real world. “No.”
“But I command you!” Scyr bellowed.
“You possess my body,” the Lady corrected him, “not my soul. I will not help you use my powers. Figure it out yourself.”
Scyr felt a tentacle wrap around his leg and knock him off his feet again. He only caught a glimpse of Miro Creed to his side, looking satisfied at the actual being who had taken him out of time and space. Anything he could do to bring about its downfall, he would.
Willing the Orb to grant him superhuman strength, Scyr managed to land one good punch at Regis, and slammed him into the ceiling of the tunnel. He fell back down—wounded, but not dead. This gave Scyr just enough time to turn and face the new threat… and was surprised that Fialla wasn’t firing.
He didn’t even feel the monomolecular blade that sliced him in two. In fact, Scyr was still standing there as Fabien Cortez simply ran past, then back out of his attack range. Scyr found himself unbalanced… and the Orb wasn’t healing him as fast as it once was. Then Spencer opened up with her plasma rifle again. This time, the bullets did more than inconvenience him. Scyr fell to the ground in pieces, trying to put himself back together again.
Again, he willed the Lady of the Lake back to his mind’s eye. “Damn it—help me!”
“I told you I couldn’t sustain this body forever,” she answered.
“You still have power. Help me or we both die.”
“You can’t die,” the Lady laughed. “You’re a Caal, cursed with immortality. If you want to save yourself, simply leave this body.”
“And lose the Orb? Never!”
The spirit laughed. “Then the Orb will die… and the universe will be free!”
Scyr’s healing process was slower and slower as he felt the Orb’s energy run out—or maybe it’s just the patternistic nature of this construct, he wondered. I will not give it up yet. Not after searching for it so long…
As he felt Regis stabbing into him, weakening the energy within him further and further, Scyr’s senses opened up to look for more energy sources. The electric power lines were sealed behind feet of fungicrete, impossible to reach. His magick was inaccessible; some strengthening of reality that Scyr had yet to fathom. But on the spirit level… there was something there, Scyr realized. Something nearby…
The Caal’s eyes opened to look at the Empress Miranda, still weeping, cradling her poor dying husband, now completely transformed into his weaker alien shell. The Caal could jump from body to body, but no one had ever thought to take the process in reverse. Miranda’s soul shined bright… like a star, Scyr thought. All he had to do was reach out with his own spirit and…
The black-skinned woman’s eyes opened wide with shock. Without the magick to resist the draining of her soul, Miranda could only scream as Scyr drained her spirit and added it to the Orb’s energy. Scyr felt the rush of completely absorbing such a rich and powerful soul in himself. His broken body slowly reformed, and with one hand, he reached out to grab the Glass Walker werewolf by the throat… and crushed it.
“Not bright enough,” Scyr chided, and threw the broken body of the trooper off to the side. Fialla opened up again, but the bolts were as ineffective as they had been before. “But your soul,” the Caal noticed, “will power me for years…”
“No!” Miro rushed forward, whipping his tentacle around Scyr’s leg, unbalancing him. The Caal turned towards the new attacker and scoffed. “Horadrim. How many of you do we have to kill before you understand the pointlessness of your little war? You... lost.”
“Lose this,” Creed spat, barbing his tentacles and yanking. The move would have ripped the flesh off any other creature, but Scyr was not any usual creature. He lost the leg and fell down—but then simply reached over and plugged it back in, like it was a defective part.
Before Scyr could launch into another diatribe, Miro launched himself forward, prickling his body with thorns, slamming into the Caal. Scyr didn’t bother screaming against the shredding of his ersatz flesh; it would have been a waste of energy. Instead, he reached out to drain Miro…
…and hit a temporal wall. “No wonder you’ve caused such trouble,” Scyr smiled as he was being flayed. He reached out his spirit mind and cut the temporal disturbance. Miro and Fialla took an unconscious step back and, as they screamed, suddenly disappeared out of this reality.
Scyr had only a second to sense the blur that was Fabian Cortez coming towards him. The ghoul was aiming for his head. Scyr reached out his hand to stop the monomolecular blade. The glowing beam cut through his arm, but Scyr’s hand grabbed the handle anyway and stopped it from taking off his head. As the Caal crushed the vorpal device, Cortez quickly got out of the way, looking around for an escape.
The Caal managed to reattach his hand as he looked at the ghoul. “Merlin?”
“Part of him,” Cortez admitted. “His blood courses through my veins. A gift from my master.”
“Oh, him.” Scyr rolled his eyes. “Why is it that we keep replaying the same story…?”
Argus only had one bullet left—the sentient drone that had been annoying him for hours. He plugged it into his sniper rifle, but had to wait until he had one clear shot at the Caal. Finally that moment had come. Argus fired; he could have sworn the drone said, “Wheeeeeee…”
…and Scyr’s head exploded. The body just stood there, as if it was still talking to Cortez, before the Caal finally fell to the floor.
McCall made his way carefully through the detritus of blood-soaked corridor, stepping over the dead body of Vin Dane… or what was Vin Dane’s Horadrim form, cradled in the arms of his dead wife. The Imperial Bodyguard were spread all around, also dead, and Cortez was the only other creature standing. He seemed completely comfortable, looking at his nails, as if he was waiting for a train to arrive.
“Who are you?” McCall demanded.
“Your friendly neighborhood Sabbat,” Fabian smiled. “Your ally.”
“My country’s ally,” the sniper corrected. “To me, you’re just another suckhead.”
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
“But our enemy is dead.”
“Is he?” Cortez asked. “I don’t see the Orb yet, do you? We know… whoever this is had it.”
“His name was Dixon. Major Osvald Dixon, TI.”
“Another mage with visions of godhood?” Fabian rolled his eyes in contempt.
“Where is the Orb?” Now Argus was curious; the Orb-powered body was still there, intact—minus his head, of course. “It should have reverted.”
“When I was in Rome, I sitting with Leo out on the balcony at night. He was Pope at the time, you see, and there was this brilliant flash in the sky. It distracted me so much that I almost didn’t see him coming at me with a dagger.”
“You killed him?” the sniper asked.
“Of course I did, that’s why I was there. The Normans paid me to kill him. But he had such a fascinating mind—it seemed a shame to kill him without talking with him first.”
Now it was Argus’ turn to roll his eyes. “If it takes the form of its owner, I wonder if…” The sniper reached out to touch the body.
And Scyr’s hand grabbed Argus. McCall felt something weird happen to him, but without any magick, he didn’t know what was happening to him until he died. His soulless corpse fell to the ground in front of the unmoving Fabian.
A new head emerged from Scyr’s body as it stood up. The Caal’s eyes gleamed wickedly at Fabian. “Oh… it shines so bright!”
Cortez bowed in deference to the new power. “Your Imperial Majesty.”
“Your soul is bright, too,” Scyr scoffed, “what there is it of it. I should be able to power the Orb for years on your spirit.” Before Fabian could escape, Scyr reached out for his soul.
“Doctor’s log, supplemental,” Bertie began, tossing the recording datapad onto a nearby table in exhaustion. “It‘s been nearly a fortnight since the ‘incident’ on Avalon. How we managed to escape from that Rattenkönig with our tails intact, I’ll never know; I’m only just now organized and rested enough to take stock of everything that’s happened since.
“First, it appears as though our Agent Five, our dear lady Victoria, has been … absorbed—for lack of a better word—into Vin Dane through the power of the Orb. Well, that’s one theory, anyway. Twedt—who is recovering nicely, if I do say so myself—has a much more… disturbing theory. She believes, from my description of Five’s abduction, that it was consistent with incidents of Caal attack. Naturally, I believe this is lunacy: after all, even if you don’t believe all the twaddle spewed forth from the Cult, the Orb has indeed done a decent job of protecting us from the Caal, and has shown no sign of deviating from this course. Time will tell, I suppose.
“My pet theory, however, is that the Orb is not just an infinite source of magical energy, as some believe, but requires some sort of… human fuel, if you will, to keep it going. If that’s the case, then… I fear we will never see our dear sweet Agent Five again. We can only honor her sacrifice and hope that it was not in vain.”
Bertie drummed her fingernails on the nightstand near the gurney, chewing over her words. The datapad beeped, indicating it had paused due to her lengthy silence. Finally she stood up and stopped the recording altogether; she could finish this later. She rubbed her eyes and thought of her husband Yuki in their nice warm bed, and the spot he always saved for her even when she wasn’t there, the dear. It was past two in the morning, local time on Jennifer’s Star, but she still had important work to do.
Making a decision, she tightened the restraints on the patient occupying the gurney one final time. She tightened them until they threatened to cut into his pale white skin, but he did not complain. In fact, the man was quite inert, cold and lifeless; a living corpse of a man.
“All right,” she said to herself, “it’s well high time to wake the dead.” With the expert skill of a surgeon, she pulled the stake (stakes, actually—she had added a few more for security...and her own sanity) from Izzy’s heart. Instinctively Izzy drew in a deep rasping breath like a drowning man, and Bertie quickly clamped a hand over his mouth.
“Shush you. It’s nearly 2:30 AM and I don’t want you waking the patients. Understand?” Izzy attempted a nod, but the restraint around his forehead prevented him. He grunted his understanding instead. “I trust you know where you are?”
Izzy licked his painfully dry lips. “I… No… not really…” His eyes searched the room for clues. “Is this your clinic? Are we on Jennifer’s Star? To tell you the truth, I haven’t been paying much attention for quite some time; after a day or two of being immobilized, you begin to hallucinate and then go into a sort of … er… ‘sleep mode.’ The last thing I remember was—” His breath caught in throat as he recalled the incidents on Avalon. “The last thing I knew, you were dragging me through Avalon’s Umbral space.” He didn’t meet her gaze, but was sure they were both thinking the same thing. “I don’t know why you did that,” he added quietly.
“Oh, I’m still trying to figure that one out myself,” she said acidly, retrieving the datapad from the nightstand and jabbing at it’s surface. She held the pad up to Izzy’s face so he could see it. He recognized the picture immediately and flushed with shame.
“Katarina Novakova, aged 11,” Bertie said in a damning, yet still quiet tone. “Her parents worked in the Imperial Palace; her mother a guard, her father head chef-mage, both killed in the recent attack.” Bertie scrolled through the dossier, which mostly consisted of elementary school records. “She received reasonably good marks in all her classes, had a pet rabbit named Mister Hoppy, her favorite color was purple—why, I believe that’s your favorite color too, Izzy—and,” Bertie took a second to admire the picture displayed on the datapad, “was a fairly good artist for an eleven year old. What do you think?” She held up the pad to Izzy’s face again; it showed a family portrait done in what looked like crayon and poster paint. There were smiling semi-stick figures of Katarina’s Mom and Dad, herself, and a round grey blob with antlers that Izzy guessed must be Mister Hoppy.
Izzy looked away. “You should have killed me.”
“Oh no you don’t!” Bertie hissed quietly. “Those who take the lives of others don’t get the comfort of wallowing in self-pity. Death-dealers can only pick themselves up and make sure the deaths count for something. There is no rest for the wicked.”
Izzy opened his mouth to object, but closed it again. For a moment, Bertie’s eyes looked so old, even older than his, as she remembered something long past. “I almost did. Kill you, I mean. Several times, in fact. If I thought it wouldn’t have gotten us all killed, I would even have turned you in to the authorities on Avalon, right then and there.” She clutched at something around her neck, hidden by layers of clothing. “Maybe I’m too soft these days, I don’t know. I didn’t even tell the others about… what you did.”
Izzy didn’t know what to say. “I thank you for allowing me what little dignity I still cling to, though I know I don’t deserve it,” he faltered lamely.
“Deserve it? Heavens no! But you’re worth more to us as a kindly but eccentric entertainment tycoon than you are as a vampire—all things considered, you really are a rubbish vampire, you know—and we are going to need as many people on our side as possible in the coming fight against the whatsywhosits, and we can’t do that if people think you are going to snack on their children.” Her speech had taken on it’s signature lighter wording, but her tone remained grave. “I borrowed your credit chit by the way, in order to get us here. I had Gabriel help crack it for me, I hope you don’t mind.” Her eyes dared him to object, which he didn’t. “Gabby thinks you should probably update your passcode to something a little more secure… and then he mentioned something about … weevils?”
“Weefle runner…” Izzy rolled his eyes. There was so much to be done. As much as Izzy wanted to disappear, Bertie was right, he knew he had to finish what he began. Agent Five may have been lost to the Orb, but Victoria Sylvest was still alive and well for the time being. All he could do now was use his limited foreknowledge to warn her and fortify her against the future. Izzy didn’t know if he could change the universe’s future by changing Victoria’s past... but he was certainly going to try.
Suddenly, Izzy thought of the one thing still left in Pandora’s Box.
A young man in a ragged uniform half walked, half crawled into the Red Eye, a bar on the edge of oblivion. It was an ex-military hangout in Drop City, on the opposite end of the planet from Loud Water on Kalintos. The fact that his uniform wasn’t Federation didn’t matter to the inhabitants of the twilight-lit bar. Many of them had served in armed forces that weren’t Federation either.
The newcomer managed to make his way to the bar and collapse. He barely noticed when a full mug of beer was placed in front of him. The young man looked up and said, “I didn’t…”
“No charge, commander,” the bartender with the strange glasses replied; one lens clear, the other shaded.
The young man took a drink and the wind seemed to come back in his sails. “Thanks. I needed that.”
“Welcome,” the bartender replied.
“What was in that?” the stranger asked, a smile appearing on his face. “I feel great.”
“Life.” The bartender shrugged. “You looked like you were on the edge of yours, pal.”
“I was. I lost track how many ships I hopped to get here.”
“To Kalintos?” The bartender’s forehead furrowed.
“To anywhere. Anywhere away from the fighting. I’m hoping to get to K’Nes space and hide for a few years. Heard it’s pretty quiet.”
“Pretty quiet now, but they don’t take friendly to humans, especially humans who don’t have creds.”
“I’ll find a way.”
“I’m sure you will,” a comforting voice came from the stool next to him.
“You can’t save everyone, Dad.” The bartender glared at the grandfather in the gray robes. “There are a lot of refugees from the war.”
“And a lot more now that the Empire’s won,” the grandfather sighed. “Might as well save who we can before the long night to come.”
“And with that, I’m cutting you off,” the bartender said, pointing at him. Looking at the newcomer, he shrugged. “Sorry about my father, commander. He thinks he can save the universe.”
“God knows I’ve tried, A.C.”
“We know, Dad.” The bartender rolled his eyes. “Twice. You told me.”
“But who’s going to save us from the Emperor?” the grandfather asked. “He’s coming, sooner or later.”
“Vin Dane?” the stranger asked.
“Or that thing that says he’s Vin Dane,” the grandfather replied. “I bent time and space to get people in place to stop him. Well, screw it. No more mister nice mage. I’m going to kill that bastard.”
“You and what navy?” the newcomer scoffed.
The grandfather, his strange tanned skin clashing with his white hair, stared at the stranger’s uniform. “Well, not the Terran Republic Navy, that’s for damn sure.”
“I know,” the newcomer sighed. “The Empire blew up our last fleet. I heard Roimata Chen disappeared once she heard, and took every last credit out of the treasury with her.”
“Now you’re out of a job.” The grandfather smiled and held out his hand. “What’s your name, friend?”
The stranger shook it. “Aaron.”
“Lwan. What do you think about piracy? The universe could use someone tweaking the Emperor’s beard.”
“You’re not serious,” A.C. groaned.
“Like you said, son, there’s gonna be a lot of refugees. A lot of them with military training. A man could do worse than signing up with a bunch of gypsies and thieves like us. And… if we can slow down the expansion of the Empire by taking out their transports, I’m all for it. It’s going to be a while before the Imperial Fleet can build up enough ships to stop us.”
“I like it,” Aaron admitted. “I know how to organize. I was in the Resistance…”
“Who wasn’t?” A.C. scoffed and went to clean a glass.
“Then I’m promoting you,” Lwan answered. “Admiral Roquefort, scourge of the space lanes!”
“Wait,” Aaron Roquefort asked, “how did you know my last name?”
Lwan winked and smiled. “Oh, I’m full of surprises.”
“I always said they’d end up killing each other.” Herbert Gergenstein looked at the corpses of Joseph and Edwina Smythe, plasma revolvers in their hands. “I just never thought it would happen literally.”
“Will anyone believe it?” his shoddily-dresses assistant asked.
“Doesn’t matter if they do, Wells. I’ve already given the orders to hold plebiscites in all the disaffected systems. I told them they better make a good deal with the Emperor… or he’d finish them off. Most of them will make the right choice.”
“Leaving us with a couple systems and a fleet.” His best agent shrugged. “Sounds like you screwed yourself on the deal.”
“You never were that smart, Wells.”
“Smythe’s dead, Gergie. Use my real name.”
“Joe never would have remembered the name Victor McManus more than anyone else did.” Herbert looked at the agent. “You were a victim of your own success. Or rather, your lack of success. You allied with Wall, allied with Treschi… hell, you allied with me, and where did it get you?”
“Spymaster for House Vendo.”
“God, don’t remind me!” Herbert rubbed his forehead. “I don’t know why that jackass gave me that house name.”
“Probably because you bought the peace,” McManus smirked. “But let’s get back to saying why I’m so dumb. You had the entire Federation, you could have…”
“Joe was just holding on by the skin of his teeth, Victor. If he could have killed Vin Dane, he might have been able to restore popular support… but without it?” Herb shrugged. “Everyone was tired of war. Even me. Smythe might have held on for another year, maybe two, but sooner or later Dane would have destroyed him. I decided to cut a deal while I still had some cards on the table.”
The hatch opened behind him and Commander Tibbets stepped out. “Lord Herbert?”
“Yes?” Gergenstein faced him.
“The Fleet’s standing down. The Tech Infantry will be given the option to stand down their arms or join the new House Guard.” Tibbets smiled. “I think your severance package will help convince them.”
The commander shrugged. “Two capital ships. We had to use your… ahem, ‘loyalty devices’ on them, but when their fusion bottles burst, the rest of the Fleet stood down.”
“I can’t believe you used Stephanie’s money to buy off the Tech Infantry,” McManus muttered. “You could have had a fortune!”
“I already do,” Gergenstein corrected. “Even after twenty years, I’ve still got InSec credits floating around. No. Give the old soldiers a chance to retire, with dignity, and they’ll get out of your hair. Otherwise, you’ve got mercenaries in your hair for decades. I read my Machiavelli.”
“But the Technocracy…?” Victor reminded.
“Won’t be restored in a day. Or a year. Or many years. But we got a foot in the door with the Empire. With any luck, we’ll find a way to shove it up the Emperor’s ass.” Herbert looked back at Tibbets. “You took good care of Stephanie?”
“No one’s going to find her.”
“Good. Then let’s get to the Grand Council chamber,” the new leader of House Vendo announced. “I’ve got to go tell them they’re out of a job.”
William Bishop got up from the computer and walked over to a bar that was nearby in the deserted restaurant. He went behind the bar, retrieved a bottle of fine scotch and a small glass, found some ice, and gently dropped several cubes into the glass. After pouring the scotch and placing the glass on the dark wooden surface of the bar, he slowly closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and exhaled.
“I know how you feel Bishop. I also lost someone special to me,” Irene said. “We should be moving.”
“I need a moment to collect my thoughts.”
Irene nodded solemnly. “Take your time.”
Bishop picked up the glass, walked around to the front of the bar, and sat down. He placed the drink on the bar and gazed forward, staring into space. After a few brief moments, he glanced down at the glass of scotch and could see his face reflected back between the small chunks of floating ice.
In the tiny reflection, he noticed that his face was pale and his eyes were bloodshot. I’ve spent my whole life training to be the perfect, cold, heartless killer. A predator. I hunt. I kill. And… I think that was the real reason I joined the Sabbat in the first place. They were the only ones I could find that could share in my pure pleasure of being able to thrust a blade into someone’s heart, and take satisfaction in watching every last glimmer of life in their eyes fade forever. Look at me now. Tears in my eyes? All shriveled up over someone that was nothing more than a tool to help me to accomplish my goal of living to kill? Look at me now. What have I become?!
Bishop’s eyes narrowed slightly as he looked at his reflection in the glass. He could feel his heart starting to pump faster, feel his rage building, the sudden surge of blood coursing through his veins. Yet he had developed enough self-control over the years to keep himself from uncontrollably shifting into Crinos, or even showing his new-found anger in his posture or facial expression. He kept his composure, raised the glass to his mouth, and drank the liquid. He put the glass down, slowly got up from the bar, and said in a calm voice, “I am feeling better now, but I need to get my mind off it.”
“Good. Again, I’m sorry. I liked Melissa to. But we have to move on. Let’s go.”
Irene turned towards the exit of the restaurant. Just as she was about to take a step forward, Bishop exploded into action. Almost faster than the eye could see, he surged forward and in fluid, lightning quick motions extracted his daggers from their sheaths, extended them to full-length swords, and ferociously stabbed them both to their hilts into Irene’s back. He viciously twisted both blades before letting go of them. He reached around and seized her throat with one hand while grabbing her lower right hip with the other.
Bishop’s heart was pounding as he lifted her high off the ground and slammed her back down onto the hard tiled restaurant floor with all the force he could muster. The back of her head fractured open with a loud crack from the trajectory of her descent and the force of the impact.
“I don’t need your sympathy!” Bishop yelled at the top of his lungs.
Bishop reached down, picked Irene’s body up off the floor, and carried it over to the bar. Grabbing the back of her bleeding skull, her slammed her head repeatedly into the bar until it was nothing more than a bloody pulp. After casting the body to the side, Bishop took a deep breath and started to calm down. “Never again,” he muttered under his breath. He then started to walk around to the other side of the bar to pour another drink. After a couple steps, for some strange reason he couldn’t explain, his skin began to feel cold.
All of the lights within the restaurant gradually became dim and went dark. The ground began to quiver and shake under Bishop’s feet. He began to feel an overwhelming sense of the wyrm, increasing to the point where it was suffocating. Intoxicating. It took all Bishop’s strength of will to avoid passing out or crawling under one of the tables in fear. And… for reasons he could not explain, the strong scent of the wyrm felt strangely exhilarating as well. Chairs and tables started to shake as liquor bottles began to rattle on shelves behind the bar, some falling to the floor and shattering into pieces.
Then, in contrast to the slowly diminishing light and the growing darkness, there was an extremely bright flash. The ground stopped shaking and the room returned to normal. From around the corner and through the restaurant door two vampires entered side by side, four large werewolves following behind. One of the vampires—one that Bishop could easily recognize and never forget—had long black hair and was wearing a stark white button-down silk shirt. The vampire on his right was an incredibly attractive female with deep golden tan skin, long wavy silver hair with streaks of platinum. She wore just enough of a stunning assortment of leopard, lion, and tiger pelts to reveal her gorgeous figure and bosom, yet at the same time left anyone gazing in her direction begging for more.
They stopped walking in Bishop’s direction once they were several paces away. A couple of the werewolves sat down facing the door, alert. The others stood beside the woman.
“I told you he’d come around,” Modred stated.
“Feeling better?” asked the female vampire.
Bishop was still stunned. Still, the disciplined warrior was able to withhold his trepidation as he looked at Mordred and inquired in a serious voice that didn’t waver, “My Most Distinguished Excellency, how may I be of service?”
Mordred ignored the question and introduced the lady next to him. “Sicarius, this is… well, we all have different names. You may know her as the Tiger Queen.”
“The antediluvian? The founder of Gangrel clan?”
“Call me Ennoia,” the woman smiled.
“I don’t understand,” William replied. “According to the legends, you were either killed… or lost somewhere in torpor.”
Ennoia chuckled, echoing like the sun through a forest after a summer rain. “You of all people should know that vampires are the masters of deception and deceit. Yes, it is true that I was in torpor for over a millennium. But, since being revived by my followers over two hundred years ago, my followers thought it best to keep it hidden.”
“Your followers?” Bishop asked.
“The Camarilla,” Mordred explained. “Contrary to what the Black Hand told everyone, many of them survived Gehenna.”
“Mordred found out about my existence,” Ennoia continued. “He offered to kill the one that I hated the most. The one who had eluded me for thousands of years. Mordred could kill him without drawing the wrath of the entire Camarilla upon me, including Ventrue.”
“Who?” asked Bishop.
A flash of anger crossed Ennoia’s face, an electric sense like a coming thunderstorm. “Arikel!”
“The War of Blood and the schism between the Camarilla, the Black Hand, and the Sabbat is now over,” Mordred elaborated. “Now that Arikel, Ventrue, and the other antediluvian leaders of the Camarilla and Black Hand are dead, Ennoia is their sole remaining leader. And… there are far more remaining members alive than what most of the former Crusader experts estimate. Our union will symbolize the end of the conflict between the antediluvians, end the conflict between our groups, and mark the beginning of a new era.”
“Union? My Lord, are you saying that you are… married?” asked Bishop.
“It’s more symbolic than physical, really.” The Sabbat leader smiled.
Ennoia flashed an angry glance in Mordred’s direction. Mordred merely shrugged.
“My Lord,” William asked, “I thought that the goal of the Sabbat was to kill all antediluvians. From what Melissa told me, she said your goal was to be the only antediluvian left.”
“Means to an end, Sicarus,” Mordred chuckled. “Unifying the Sabbat and Camarilla is a large undertaking, too large for either one of us to maintain alone. Our combined force will be stronger than either of us could wield single handedly.”
They are holding something back… Bishop thought about what they said for a moment, then remembered something he read in the book written by Claudius Giovanni. “Didn’t Arikel have a twin brother?”
“Malkav?” Ennoia laughed. “He has not been heard from in thousands of years. Besides, he is completely and irrevocably insane.”
“I have searched for over a thousand years in order to destroy him.” Mordred shrugged, and a sense of relief passed through the werepanther. “He has gone someplace that we cannot find… nor he can escape from. I have forgotten him. He is no longer a factor.”
Bishop nodded. Perhaps that is the real reason they are working together. Trying to change the subject, he asked, “Is there something you need me to do, my lord?”
“We want to build the Dooms Day Device used to destroy Enoch,” Ennoia stated. “We believe Olin Industries has the personnel and resources to build them, but their mages and physicists have not been able to duplicate the process.”
Mordred pulled out a miniature datapad from one of his pockets and pushed a button. A small holographic image of a complex was displayed several inches above the palm of hand. “We have learned that Anshin Heavy Industries on New Tokyo was Clarke’s chief supplier and researcher of the technologies needed to build the devices. I need you to break into their headquarters, hack into their main databases, and steal the designs.”
Bishop nodded. “I want a small team. I need Luther to—”
“Luther will not be going with you on this mission,” Ennoia said before Bishop could finish his sentence.
“But I am Luther’s Templar. His personal assassin. Who will I report to?”
“From now on you will report to me,” Ennoia answered.
“Am I going to be your Templar now?”
Ennoia shook her head. “My Paladin.”
“With all due respect my Lady, the role of a Paladin is a protector. I live for the hunt. To kill. Don’t you think that I would be more suited to be a Templar? Why me?” asked Bishop.
Once again, Ennoia shook her head. “After you made contact with Luther, I learned your history, your activities leading up to your arrival on Wilke’s Star, and your movements since. You brutally killed the leader of a major faction, then shot someone that loved you in the back. And everyone at your initiation—everyone, including powerful vampires alive for centuries—are now all dead. You killed Marshal Palencia, considered to be the finest warrior in the galaxy…”
“No. Dent was always better than me.” Bishop disdained false compliments.
“Your former commanding officer is dead, too.” Ennoia lifted an eyebrow; for once, this news didn’t affect Bishop at all. “Everyone around you dies… and everyone you want to kill is dead. You’re not just a killer or a hunter. You are an animal, a beast—and that is what my clan represents. That’s the kind of person I want to destroy my enemies when I am occupied with something else.”
“I am honored,” Bishop replied after a brief pause.
“He still has much to learn,” Mordred commented.
I will teach him, husband. Let’s go.”
“What about the Orb? Vin Dane?” Bishop asked.
“Luther and the rest of the Sabbat here can handle it,” Mordred answered before calmly walking towards the restaurant’s exit. Bishop quickly extended his wrists, and the swords embedded in Irene’s corpse rocketed through the air into his waiting grasp. He shortened them to daggers and sheathed them. Ennoia walked over to Bishop, gently grabbed hold of his arm, and led him towards the door as well. The werewolves got up and followed them. Just before they reached the exit, there was a bright flash followed by extreme darkness. When the light returned, all of them were gone.
Somewhere in some unknown realm or plane of existence was a hill on a small island with a dead tree at the center. It was surrounded by a thick swamp that extended endlessly into the horizon with no distinguishing land mark or sign of life in between. Up in the sky was a huge mesmerizing display of a spinning vortex of purple, green, and yellow vapors that had, up until several hours ago, been nothing more than an inert haze of gases.
Standing beside the tree was a male vampire dressed in torn pieces of clothing with a bloody rag wrapped around his head, covering his eyes. He appeared to waver between having a serious discussion with someone that only he could imagine, then without warning abruptly walking over to the edge of the hill to scream at the top of his lungs out into the void. Then, just as unexpectedly, he would return to the tree, fall down, and weep at its base.
There was another person standing at the edge of the island wearing a long black trench coat, with a short military hair cut, mainly gray streaked with white. He had been standing there for hours without being unnoticed, observing the madman roaming around the island. While the man appeared to be relaxed, hands in the pockets of his coat, his gaze had not left the insane vampire for an instant since he had arrived.
The vampire wearing rags got up off the ground and screamed once more into the distance. He then fell back down cross-legged on the ground with the trunk of the tree supporting his back. It appeared that he was sleeping except for the sporadic outbursts of unintelligible babble.
The man wearing the trench coat calmly and quietly walked over to vampire and looked down at him. He slowly pulled his hands out of his pockets and clasped them together so that they rested down at his waist. He lowered his breathing and narrowed his eyes to the point where they were slits, focusing on the face of the madman seated in front of him for what seemed like an eternity.
Very, very slowly, the moments of incomprehensible outbursts by the man in vampire began to decrease. His head leaned back against the trunk and gradually became quiet, calm, and peaceful. The hundreds of voices in his mind became silent, and for the first time in thousands of years, he could register one coherent thought at a time. The man slowly raised his hand, removed the rag from around his head, and looked forward with an expression of utter hatred.
“Malkav,” the man named him.
“You… you cured me?”
“Yes,” the man nodded. “I need you. As you now know, we have a common enemy.”
“Mordred,” the antediluvian spat. “The bastard who trapped me here.”
“Caine always considered you to be the most intelligent of his childer.”
Malkav stared at the man. “You didn’t know him.”
“No, but I read his book,” the man chuckled. “I’m going to need your wisdom and vision in order to obliterate the one we both want to see destroyed.”
Malkav locked eyes with the man facing him and nodded. “How did you find me?”
“That’s a long story.”
“Normally, I would say I have plenty of time, but…” The antediluvian shrugged. “Who are you?”
“Andrea Treschi,” the mage answered. “Come, let me take you back to reality.”
THREE MONTHS LATER
Adorinda Alinejad hooked her right arm in front of her chest, went down onto one knee, and bowed low enough that she could nearly kiss the carpet in front of her.
"Praise be upon Him who saves us from the Caal!" she said, projecting her voice as loudly as she could—without actually shouting.
"You may rise and approach the throne, Admiral," another voice said, with a deep resonance that easily managed Adorinda's same goal of being loud and clear without yelling.
Adorinda did as instructed. His Holy and Imperial Majesty Vin Dane looked down imposingly at her from his raised throne. The second throne beside him remained pointedly empty, as it had been since the Battle of the Round Table.
"You summoned me, Your Majesty?"
Adorinda was a practical woman. She believed that a simple comlink conversation would have sufficed for anything the Emperor needed to discuss with her, and would have saved both of them a lot of time and effort. But there was not a snowball's chance in a fusion bottle that she would ever, ever mention that belief to anyone. Not when the purge which had seen Adorinda promoted four ranks in as many months was still finding fresh victims within the Navy.
"I did, Admiral. First, allow me to congratulate you on your performance thus far. I realize how challenging the sudden expansion of you responsibilities must have been, but you have proven yourself more than equal to the task. Not only have you been the most effective of my new crop of flag officers, but your efficiency reports have consistently come in better than those of all three of your predecessors in Home Fleet. And I mean before factoring out the dishonesty in the old reports, Admiral. You should be quite proud of yourself."
"Thank you, Your Majesty." Adorinda suppressed a shudder thinking about those last admirals, all of whom were now dead.
"I'm afraid that's the end of the good news, however. Before I go on, I'd like you to have a look at something."
An Imperial Bodyguard stepped forward and offered a box to Adorinda. It was heavier than it looked, and she held it in both hands.
"A K'Nes merchant delivered this last week," the Emperor said. "Apparently it had been sent some months ago, but the messenger was considerably delayed by the conflict with the… lesser houses. The K'Nes scurried back out of the system before he could receive a reply. So I have been contemplating a proper one since then. Go ahead and look inside."
Not exactly encouraged by this explanation, Adorinda tipped up the lid of the box and glanced at the contents. It was a huge, black, and desiccated… head, she concluded after a moment of staring.
"I'm sorry," she said, a little disoriented, "is that a Bug?"
"It is a Horadrim," the Emperor said coldly enough to send a shiver down Adorinda's spine. She gulped, and shut the box again. "A friend of mine, actually. Zechariah McNeilly," Vin Dane continued. His voice seemed to have mellowed again, but Adorinda didn't dare trust it enough to relax. "He had been serving as a consul to Pirr Varrless before the change in leadership on Purrfang. We had obviously underestimated the extent of their hostility toward us."
"I'm… sorry, Your Majesty." What was she supposed to say to that?
The Emperor nodded. "I appreciate that, Admiral. And I have decided to partially enact the SPIGOT contingency in retaliation. We don't yet have the forces to contemplate a serious invasion of the K'Nes systems. So instead, you will see to the dismantling of the hyperspace gates and beacon networks around the eastern frontiers.”
“We’re cutting them off from space?”
“Unfortunately, no. We suspect the K'Nes do have some capacity for interstellar travel without the gates and beacons, but you should at least be able to outmatch a few blockade runners. We'll be bleeding ourselves as well as the K'Nes by implementing the contingency so early, so I'm counting on you to make sure that the K'Nes bleed worse than us. Do you understand, Admiral?"
"Yes, Your Majesty." Adorinda's eyes were wide from fear. SPIGOT was going to be an economic catastrophe for every system where it was implemented. And since the Imperial Navy was still years away from building up any sort of appreciable merchant marine, it was going to be an absolutely unmitigated catastrophe. And it was going to be her responsibility.
“You will then assume responsibility for establishing and enforcing a Navy monopoly over hyperspace transport throughout the region.”
The admiral blinked as she took in her new orders. “You mean… destroy our own jumpgates? But we have few gravity drive engines in place. The Fleet is dependent on—”
“I know it will not be easy, but think of it more as a long-range goal.”
“Gravity drives are hideously expensive, Your Majesty.”
“Then we won’t use them,” the Emperor smiled. “My people have ships with tunnel drives…”
SIX MONTHS LATER
Hans Beauregard paid little attention at first to the new person walking into his bar. Most people who walked in weren't worth paying much attention to. Hans' was low-class spaceport bar, sure enough, but most spacers were actually decent, respectable folk who had enough crap in their daily lives. They came here to relax in peace, not get in more trouble.
Except this new guy, apparently.
He slapped a credit chit down onto the bar in front of Hans.
"Eight shots, vodka," he said.
Hans looked him up and down. He was just a kid, easily the youngest person in the bar. He was tall and lanky, but slightly hunched to disguise his height. He was dressed roughly like the other spacers, but on close examination his clothes were much too clean and new to have been authentic.
"How old are you?" Hans asked him.
"Old enough that seven shots aren't enough," the kid said. He tapped the credit chit with one impatient finger.
Hans looked the kid in the eye for a second or two, then shrugged and got his glasses. A few of the other nearby patrons were visibly alert enough that Hans wasn't worried about being able to throw the joker out if he did something stupid.
The kid downed his vodkas in short order, one after the other. He staggered slightly after the seventh, but kept his feet. After the last, rather than slamming the glass back down on the bar, he held it up to his eyes. After turning the glass all the way around in his fingers, he threw it as hard as he could to the fungicrete floor at his feet. The glass shattered, and two of Hans' nearest patrons stood up from their stools to flank the kid.
"Sorry about that," the kid said, managing to keep his words clear even if he was saying them somewhat slowly. "You can charge me whatever you want for it," he gestured at the credit chit again.
"If you've got a problem boy," Hans said, "take it—"
"Damn right I've got a problem!" the kid snapped. He turned and made a sweeping gesture at everyone in the bar. "All of you have got a problem! We're getting screwed!"
One of the big spacers standing next to the kid rolled his eyes. "All right, that's—"
The kid spun and slammed one hand down onto the bar, rattling his empty glasses. "They're shutting down the gates!" he snarled.
That elicited plenty of grumbles from the other spacers. "Only in a couple sectors," someone said, "what do you care?"
"Horseshit!" The kid shook his head emphatically. "I know people working on the plans. It's just a goddamn phased roll-out. They're going to shut down the whole network. Few years, it's going to be Imperial transports or nothing."
"Fine," Hans said, "they're shutting everything down. Now take it outside."
The kid spat on the ground. But he turned and walked back towards the door. Or rather, he took two steps, then whirled back around, raised a fist, and yelled to everyone who could hear:
"I did not come here just to have them take everything away from me! Fuck that! Fuck Vin Dane and fuck his Navy, too!"
Maybe the kid wanted cheers, but all he got was silence. Hans felt a cold sweat forming on his neck. He didn't think there were likely to be government informants planted in his quiet, boring bar. But if there were, he needed a sedition charge like he needed a plasma bolt to the back of the head. They were essentially the same thing.
"All right," he growled back, "just who the hell are—"
But the kid actually reached into his pocket, took out his Imperial ID, and smacked it down onto the bar in front of Hans, too.
"Go ahead and burn that into your ledger, because I don't want it anymore. My name is Jim Welthammer, and I am done with all this crap."
“You have been chosen…”
The Imperial marine in his red service overalls coughed into his fist before he resumed speaking. “Ahem, you have all been chosen for an honor greater than has been bestowed upon any other subject of the Empire. Each and every one of you has demonstrated exceptional loyalty, dedication, and capability in service to your Emperor and your God. In return, you are now being offered an opportunity, and a challenge.
“Experience has taught all of you how manifold and how devious the Empire’s enemies are. Experience has taught you the foolishness of underestimating those enemies, and the necessity of sacrifice to defeat them. That experience is what the Empire needs now, and it is you we’ll need to overcome the threat we now face.”
The marine walked slowly down the small line of men and women assembled in front of him, eyeing each one in turn. “For the moment, there is little I can tell you about this assignment. I’m not your briefing officer. My instructions, now that you have been properly congratulated for being the exemplars that you are, were to impress upon you that the task you will be performing is dangerous, and to ask for volunteers. And it is dangerous: you will very likely die. But the Emperor needs someone to do it, and he’s asking you. Now, would any of you rather go home?”
“No, sir!” The response was a little more muted and casual than it might have been coming from a group of enlisted soldiers. But only a few of the people in the group were formal soldiers.
The marine officer nodded in satisfaction. “I didn’t think so. And I’m proud of you for proving me correct. We need the strongest holy warriors in—”
“Wait, warriors?” one of the people he was addressing—a younger man—asked. “What’s the geezer doing here, then?” He pointed towards the end of the line where another man (who was not actually all that old) sat in a wheelchair.
The kid might have meant the comment good-naturedly, but it came off as mocking, and the marine officer’s eyes blazed as he rounded on the whelp. “I’d mind my manners if I were you, son,” he growled. “Sir Smith there might well be the toughest warrior on this boat. I suggest you ask him how he earned that knighthood before you disrespect him.”
The young man blinked at this chastisement. He opened his mouth and worked his jaw a few times before turning to the man in the wheelchair and giving an apologetic bow. “My behavior shames me, Sir Smith. Please forgive me.”
The demon hunter returned a solemn nod. “I’m no saint myself, brother,” he rasped. “Let’s save our hostility for the fiends and infidels, shall we?”
The kid smiled as he stood back up. “Yes. Sir.”
The marine officer coughed again. “As I was saying…”
“Who names a ship the INS Nightmare?” asked the same sarcastic kid a few hours later.
“We do, obviously,” someone else muttered from near a window. The group of “holy warriors” had finally been dismissed and were now sitting around the lounge of their small transport, waiting for it to finish docking with the aforementioned Imperial Navy vessel.
“No, I mean—why? Who’d want to work on a ship called that?”
“I imagine that it serves the same purpose as the names of many of our other warships,” the demon hunter opined. He was parked across from the younger man’s seat, to demonstrate his lack of hard feelings from before. “Like sword, or dragon, or dreadnought: it invokes a terrifying image in order to project fear into the minds of the enemies. Or at least, to make its crewmen feel as if they were terrifying.”
“Nawww,” said a bearded man sitting on the couch to the demon hunter’s left. “Well, yes, actually, but it’s more than just that. It’s an inside joke for the navy birds. The Old Federation ran a bunch of science experiments out of a ship called the EFS Nightmare—cyberization, cloning, nasty things like that. The Emperor himself might have spent time there, being turned into a mage.”
“Do you think that’s what this is?” the kid asked him. “They’re going to try to turn us into super soldiers or something?”
“Of course that’s what this is!” the history-minded gentleman snorted. “Didn’t you listen to that major’s speech? We’re the best of the best—or so they want us to think. Anyway, they’re going to try to make us better so that we can go fight the Bugs with our bare hands or something.”
“Really? Who were you before all this?”
The man leaned back on the couch and grinned through his dark beard. “Mercenary,” he said. “Most recently, I helped with some high-risk archaeology for the Rustami Family.”
“High risk archaeology?”
“We did covert digs on Jurvain worlds. Skinnies tended to get mad whenever they found us.”
“All right, folks!” came a shout from the door. “Docking complete, up and assemble over here!”
The marine major was back and standing impatiently at the lounge entrance. Conversations murmured to a halt and people began to pick their way across the room. The demon hunter waited for most of the crowd to pass his position so that he had room to maneuver his wheelchair, then went to join the lineup.
The officer gestured towards him as he rolled up. “Actually, Sir Smith, if you would proceed on down the hall right away. Colonel Masin will take care of you.”
The demon hunter nodded respectfully, then steered his chair forward, around the Major, and out the door. Another marine in an officer’s uniform greeted him just on the other side.
“Follow me, please, Sir Smith,” Colonel Masin said after a short bow. Then he took off at a brisk walk down the hallway. The demon hunter powered up his chair’s motor to keep pace.
Their little transport was larger than a standard passenger shuttle, but not by much. They quickly traversed the hall, and crossed through the large passenger airlock into the cooler air of the Imperial Navy’s light cruiser, Nightmare.
“The eggheads are insisting that we start as soon as possible,” Masin said as he walked. “But we still wanted to get you in before anyone else. So I apologize for the rush.”
“No apology necessary,” the demon hunter told him. “You were hardly taking me away from any important activity.”
Masin smiled. “Fair enough,” he said. “So I don’t suppose you know yet why we’ve brought you all out here?”
“The dominant theory is that we are being recruited into some sort of special forces unit. And are perhaps here for special training, or perhaps to be augmented or otherwise enhanced into super soldiers.”
The colonel nodded. “That’s… a decent sketch of what we’re doing, yes. The devil’s in the details, though, and it’s a big devil.”
He ushered the demon hunter into a lift, and the two rode it to a new deck of the cruiser. Armed guards were posted at regular intervals along a corridor outside various sealed rooms. The marines all came to attention as the lift opened, and stayed that way until Masin and the demon hunter passed. Eventually, they stopped outside one of the closed doors, which the colonel opened after placing his face and hand into a pair of biometric scanners.
The room inside was bare, just a large metal box with another sturdy metal door on the far wall, flanked by two more marines. Masin waited for the entrance to close behind them again before continuing.
“Okay,” he said, and took a deep breath. “Essentially, the Battle of Avalon was only a partial victory over the Caal. Not only because the Emperor has told us that there are still more of the wraiths hiding in other systems and out beyond the explored frontier.”
The demon hunter merely nodded. Masin blew out his cheeks in a sigh of relief, as if he’d been expecting the man in the wheelchair to explode with fury. “That’s not technically classified information,” the colonel said. “But we prefer not to spread it around. I’m sure you understand why.”
“Of course,” the demon hunter agreed. Truthfully, it was news to him, and quite shocking news at that. But neither panic nor outrage were useful reactions. And it certainly seemed likely that he was being told this so that he could participate in a solution to the problem. If so, he ought to feel proud, not offended.
“The Emperor, in his wisdom, has decided against personal intervention to simply annihilate the lingering Caal. The Empire needs individuals capable of battling this threat on their own, so that they may take the fight to other worlds, and stand against future incursions if and when they occur.”
“That is to be our mission, then?” It seemed the demon hunter’s guess had been correct.
“It is,” Masin nodded gravely. “What we’re going to be subjecting you and the others to here will serve as both a test of your abilities to perform that mission, and should provide you with the tools necessary to carry it out.”
“I see,” the demon hunter said.
Masin looked doubtful. “We’ve been flying out here for about a week now, maneuvering on thrusters alone. There’s a whole company of spirit mages on board designing charms and erecting barriers.” He turned and pointed at the far wall. “Each of these rooms contains a Caal. They’re confined, but that’s all we can do to them. Each of you will confront one of the wraiths, and you will either overcome and defeat it, or fall to possession and be consumed.”
The demon hunter was quiet. He could feel his fear like a ball of ice dropped into his belly. But somehow it was a distant thing. He was aware of it, but it did not control him or cloud his mind. And for that, he did allow his sense of pride to swell somewhat. His sense of duty was more powerful than even fear for his own soul.
Colonel Masin folded his hands behind his back as he turned back to face the demon hunter, his expression remorseful. “We… aren’t sure how many of you are likely to survive, if any. But we have been assured that it is possible, and that by resisting possession one may learn a sort of immunity to its evil, and gain even the ability to fight the Caal in person. That’s why we’re putting you through this despite the risks. And it’s why we wanted to start with you, Sir Smith.”
The demon hunter allowed himself to show a bit of curiosity on his face. Colonel Masin smiled.
“You’re the only person we know about—apart from the Emperor himself, praise be upon Him—who has ever come close to prevailing over a Caal in a contest of will and spirit. I know the circumstances of your battle were somewhat different than here. But even the Emperor has said that, if any of our recruits can succeed, it will be you. We’re hoping to put you through the test first so that, when you do emerge, you will serve as proof to the others that it can be done. Just that hope should boost their spirits and strengthen them tremendously for their own tests.”
“And if I fail?” The demon hunter did not really want to undermine his own confidence, but the question emerged from his lips all the same.
“Then I will grieve,” Masin said, looking appropriately dismayed. “And we will probably not tell the others that you have been through yet at all. But I have faith in you, Sir Smith. And I believe that your faith is stronger than the twisted magick of any demon.”
“I appreciate that, Colonel. My faith was indeed the strongest weapon I had when I last confronted a demon.” He leaned back in his wheelchair, and then sighed himself. “Very well, then, let me meet the demon you have captured and strike it down before I have time to feed any doubts I may have.”
Masin’s eyebrows shot up. “I… yes, of course,” he said. “That was to be my request, anyway. But I am encouraged by your conviction. I am sure that you will succeed.”
He turned and approached the door, and both of the guards saluted. It took the demon hunter a few seconds to realize that they were saluting him, not the colonel, and he returned the gesture as graciously and properly as he could manage, having never actually served before.
“There’s a comm panel by the door,” Masin said, tapping a spot on the wall on his own side. “Just activate it to speak with me, once you have destroyed the Caal. The mages will have to confirm before we let you back out, of course.”
The demon hunter nodded, and Colonel Masin worked a control to open the door. It was a small airlock-style passage, with another door just a couple meters away. The demon hunter rolled in, and listened to the door close again behind him before the second one opened. He directed the wheelchair forward.
The room inside was also just an empty box, with slightly dimmer light than the first chamber. The second door closed after he passed through it, and the demon hunter stopped just inside.
At first, he could see nothing, no signs of any demon or fiendish power at all. But he was not deterred or dismayed. He concentrated on controlling his breathing and focusing his mind. The demon hunter’s faith in his Emperor and his God was a power beyond all others in the universe. Except, of course, the God-Emperor’s own will. That faith, that trust, guided the demon hunter’s every action, every thought, in service to a noble purpose. It was what gave him the power to defeat his enemies. And it gave him the knowledge to find those enemies. To hunt them down no matter their cunning, and no matter the obstacles which might stand in his way.
The demon stood just in front of him. It was hunched forward, looking at its hunter, almost as if it were curious. And then it seemed to become aware that the demon hunter was watching it back, and it straightened. As much as the demon hunter could see, the wraith had no real features; it surface appeared to be a smooth, opaque shadow. And yet it still felt as if the demon smiled at him as it reached out towards his face.
The demon hunter cut through its limb with a sword drawn out of its holster on his own arm. The blade gleamed and vibrated as it split the shadow, and the demon stumbled backward. Its shriek sounded as if it were carried in on a distant wind.
The demon hunter spun the blade around in his hand, and pushed his chair forward. Truthfully, he probably did not need the short sword. The demon was not a material thing. Steel alone could not touch it, much less hurt it. It was the strength of the demon hunter’s faith alone which did that. Still, it did not hurt to have a focus for his actions. The demon hunter readied for his second strike.
A motion perceived in the corner of his eye diverted him, and he nearly fell out of his wheelchair as he ducked. But he recovered quickly and stabbed immediately into the heart of the second shadow. It fell back, screaming like the first.
The demon hunter’s face twitched as he rounded back on his first target. He would need to finish it quickly now, without hesitation. But then a slight choking noise bubbled in the back of his throat as he saw two more of the demons flanking the first. He bit his tongue against a curse, and then drew back on his wheelchair’s throttle to back away. With his free hand, he threw his blade at one of the demons, causing it to writhe, and then reached for his second sword holster.
More shadows entered his vision. They passed through the walls to enter the room, and the demon hunter felt his innards seize with apprehension. The others were still advancing, none of the wounds he had done to them were enough to seriously stop creatures made of spirit rather than flesh.
They would be on him again in seconds. The demon hunter turned his head towards the door. In his mind, he swore at himself for declining the swift replacement of his legs with healthy flash-cloned ones. New eyes he had consented to, but spending several months confined to a wheelchair while the bones—shattered from impact with the maintenance pod that rescued him from space—healed had seemed like an appropriate penance for his earlier failure.
He stood up. The pain was hard to ignore, but he did it anyway. Then he threw his wheelchair at the approaching demons, and grunted as his left thigh nearly gave out from the strain. The chair passed right through the fiends without injuring them in the slightest, but it did give them a moment’s pause, if only out of confusion.
The demon hunter did not waste that moment. As soon as he’d let go of the chair, he launched himself towards the door, slapping at the comm panel with one hand.
“Colonel!” he shouted. “The containment has failed; the Caal are loose in numbers!”
There was no response.
All around him, the demons laughed, and closed their circle tighter.
ONE YEAR LATER
“…Tressmarr Technologies down a quarter point, Horrath Industries up one and a quarter; Varrless Financial down three and a half; Miao Mercantile up two and a third, and Gurrmew & Yeomurt LLP up one and a half. This is Durrmach Media Midday Market News wishing our viewers, as always, a very gainful day!”
Heth floated in slow circles around the waiting room, too nervous and excited to sit still. He was probably annoying the other K’Nes fathers waiting patiently—but he didn’t really care. He’d tried to get some work done… but he couldn’t concentrate. So he floated in circles and waited, the holoproj occasionally distracting him.
“Miao Mercantile today reported their highest quarterly profits in ten years, their largest gain since before the Second Vulthra War,” the announcer continued. “The Miao corporate clan attributes this entirely to their new line of gravity drives, compensating for the destruction of the Imperial jumpgates.”
Tell me something I don’t know! Heth thought, unreasonably irritated by the announcer’s calm voice.
“Independent market analysts, however, suspect a significant source of revenue comes from the newly-acquired Miao subsidiary MIRADI, the sole producer of the proprietary biometal Impossibarium, currently in high demand for use in rearming the Llan Fleet and Security Division,” the announcer continued.
Heth glanced at the time. It’d been fourteen hours now. What’s taking so long? Are there complications?
“…and on to our top story. Earlier today, the Llan-Imperial Non-Aggression Contract was signed by K’Nes Llan LEO Horrath and Emperor Vin Dane in a lavish ceremony before the Board of Directors.” Heth looked up, mildly interested and thankful for the distraction. “Notably missing from the festivities was Miao K’Rrowr K’Heth, Executive Director for Defense, unable to attend as he is currently expecting the birth of his first litter.”
That, and I’m not going anywhere near another Horadrim for as long as I live, Heth thought.
“Sky Lord Soth of the Llan Fleet volunteered to host the contract signing ceremony aboard the T’Ssowll, the new Tor-class battle carrier currently serving as the flagship for the Llan Fleet.” The holoproj switched to an image of dozens of K’Nes fighters shooting fireworks. “Also in attendance was Grand Praetor Narrah, flying the K’Nes Llan’s Security Division in formation as part of a military parade officially thrown in the Emperor’s honor.”
…and unofficially, Heth mentally added, as a friendly warning that the K’Nes Llan is both willing and able to defend itself from another hostile takeover attempt… considering the Empire botched the last one.
“In his speech, Emperor Vin Dane stated that he looked forward to a long and profitable business relationship between the Empire and the Llan,” the announcer continued. “He also repeated his claim that his attaché, the Horadrim Zechariah McNeilly, acted alone, without either the Emperor’s knowledge or consent, in assisting former LEO Pirr Varrless in his failed attempt to forcibly restructure the K’Nes Llan.”
And if you believe that, Heth thought, I’ve got a jumpgate you might want to buy. It wasn’t just Heth—most K’Nes were openly skeptical of the Emperor’s claim. The infamous “Varrless-Vin Dane Contract,” after all, did indeed contain the Emperor’s blood signature. Still… at least the Emperor was polite enough to deny it.
Heth jumped. He’d gotten so caught up in the news that he hadn’t even noticed the calico doctor floating up next him. He spun around, heart hammering in excitement. “Yes? What’s the news? Is everyone alright?”
“Everyone’s fine, Director… all ten of them,” she answered, smiling. “Six females, four males, all healthy.”
A look of bliss overcame Heth’s face. “And Miu? Is she alright, too?”
“Yes, Director, your mate’s just fine… although she’s exhausted, obviously.”
Heth’s smile grew even wider. “Can… can I see them?”
“Yes… briefly.” The doctor gave Heth a stern look. “They all need their rest for now… understood?”
“Perfectly,” Heth nodded. He was led through the maternity ward to a recovery room. As he entered, Miu looked up at him and smiled… wearily. She lay on her side on a cushion, nursing some of their black-and-white kittens, while others lay in a crib nearby, squirming and mewing. Heth was elated. He had no idea what to say… so he just floated over to Miu and licked her face instead. She licked him back, and then turned her attention back to their kittens.
“Sky Father above…” Heth whispered, overcome. “They’re so… precious!”
“Priceless,” Miu agreed softly, “every one of them.”
Heth didn’t want to disturb the suckling kittens, so he turned to the crib instead, undid the latch, and lifted the lid. Some humans found it horrifying that K’Nes kept their newborns in cages… but the apes simply didn’t understand that, until the kittens learned to control their inflating, they were far more likely to float out of their crib and get into all sorts of potentially harmful mischief. Very carefully, Heth lifted a black-and-white striped kitten out, terrified he might accidentally drop it. The cub mewed indignantly and began gnawing on Heth’s paw, scratching with his tiny claws. It only took a few seconds for the cub to tire himself out.
“Well!” Heth said, mildly surprised. “You’re a feisty little one, aren’t you?” Heth stroked the cub’s fur down gently, rubbing behind his ears until he reluctantly began to purr. The cub opened his mouth wide in a toothy yawn, stretched, and promptly fell asleep in Heth’s paws. Heth melted.
He looked over at Miu, watching him with amusement. “Can we name this one M’Rowr? Please?”
“We have a deadline, O’Reilly,” Gergenstein said, walking into the lab. “You don’t make an Emperor wait.”
Xinjao looked up from the holoproj display, blinking and weary. “Don’t worry, boss,” he replied, rubbing a palm into his good eye. “I’m finishing up the last round of testing simulations right now. It’s looking good so far.”
When Gergenstein first captured O’Reilly and his family, the fat engineer had clearly wanted to throttle Herbert to death with his bare hands. Gergenstein was forced to be rather heavy-handed in persuading O’Reilly to work for House Vendo—which was really the Neo-Technocracy, despite their supposed allegiance to the Empire—by practically holding Xinjao’s family hostage. O’Reilly had complied… reluctantly.
But then the Empire won the war. The engineer had to admit; Gergenstein had a talent for political survival… and with the Technocracy contacts in the Imperial Home Fleet, and the resources of Harrington Industries at his disposal, House Vendo had survived well enough. And, since Gergenstein had gone to considerably trouble to acquire O’Reilly’s technomagical expertise for the Technocracy… he’d allowed the O’Reillys to survive, too.
Xinjao was a clever man. As the Empire consolidated its hold on human space, O’Reilly realized his best chance to keep his wife and daughter alive and safe was under the protection of Gergenstein’s organization. He was also quick to realize the Technocracy wouldn’t risk protecting his family unless he was useful to them.
He’d grown a lot more cooperative over the last year. A lot.
“This is excellent news, O’Reilly,” Gergenstein said. “The Emperor will be very pleased.”
“We’re still years away from a prototype, Herb,” Xinjao cautioned his superior. “Even longer before we can go into production. And when we do, these things are going to be hideously expensive.”
“Details,” Gergenstein said, dismissing the thought with a wave of his hand. “For now, the Emperor will be happy just to know that it’s technologically feasible. You say the organic components are finally interfacing with the magitek components?”
“So far,” O’Reilly sighed, “and we’re almost done testing.” He watched the ghostly image of the massive power armor spin slowly on the holographic display. “Both organics and mechanics are channeling arête.”
“Fascinating,” Gergenstein mused. “The Horadrim are an inherently non-magickal species… and so is their organic technology. How did you finally make the Horadrim biotech awakened?”
“I dunno. Biology’s not my field; ask that Dr. Hicks guy. He said something about the organic components having to be not just alive, but semi-sentient—like a Horadrim ship—in order to use magick.” Xinjao looked up at Gergenstein. “It sounds a lot like the process that made Vin Dane a mage. Did you manage to get your hands on the Project Exo-Genesis research?” When Gergenstein merely smiled and said nothing, O’Reilly grunted and turned back to the holoproj; he was used to Herbert’s non-answer answers by now. “Something else I been meaning to as ask you, Herb. The sheer size of this power armor… it’s more of a piloted robot than armor, really… and that sounds familiar. Real familiar.” He looked up at Gergenstein and narrowed his good eye. “It’s based on the Christian Federation’s All-Father project… isn’t it?”
Gergenstein shrugged and said nothing.
“Thought so,” O’Reilly grunted. The results of the final simulation test appeared on the holoproj, and Xinjao studied them silently for a moment. “It worked.” He let out a long, weary sigh. “All right, that’s it. These scary powerful bio-magick-robot-armor-things could be built… theoretically, at least. We did it.”
A satisfied smiled touched Gergenstein’s face. “Congratulations, O’Reilly. Good work.”
Xinjao yawned. “Any idea what the Empire plans to do with these… GyMeLifs?”
“That’s a pretty lame acronym, Chin,” Gergenstein said, frowning. “It doesn’t even make sense.”
“I’m very tired.”
“And I’ve still got to make it through services.” O’Reilly glanced out the window. “Crap. Sun’s already set. I’m gonna be late for temple. Probably get an earful from Leisa about it, too.”
“I thought you guys still went by the sunset times from the old Earth calendar… don’t you?”
“Nah, that’s just the Chasidic Jews. We’re Reform.” O’Reilly stood and stretched. “So… you coming to Shabbat dinner tonight, Herb?”
Gergenstein rolled his eyes. “Do I even need to answer that?”
O’Reilly shrugged. “I know, I know… but Leisa makes me ask every week, just in case you change your mind someday.”
“I’ve got work to do, O’Reilly.”
Xinjao regarded Gergenstein for a moment. “We just did the impossible, Herb,” he said, gesturing at the holoproj display and admiring his handiwork. “You can take one night off. It’s time to celebrate. Hell, I got a bottle of Hyperian scotch I’ve been saving for this occasion.” He cast a sideways glance at Gergenstein. “Besides… Leisa cooks up a mean brisket.”
Herbert raised an eyebrow. He had to admit… it did sound tempting.
MANY YEARS LATER
When the timeline finally corrected itself, Miro and Fialla suddenly found themselves whipped back into reality. When the universe stopped spinning, Miro asked, “Where the hell are we?”
The two of them looked around, taking in the barren countryside, which was ruins and dirt as far as the eye could see. “Avalon,” Fialla knew instantly, and sighed with disappointment. “Base Timeline, 3045 AD. Well… so much for a vacation.”
“The future? Damn.” Creed hung his head. “Wait—what do you mean by ‘Base Timeline?’”
The mage shrugged. “Got tired of calling them numbers. This is the one I’m from—or I was, nine hundred years ago. It’s the timeline that comes up the most often.”
“So humanity is extinguished and we’re on a lifeless rock for the rest of our lives.”
“No,” Spencer shook her head, “there’s still people here. Somewhere. But this Avalon was wrecked in a revolution against the Emperor about a hundred years ago. He moved the capital to Wilke’s Star afterwards.”
“You don’t mean…?”
“Yep, we’re in Vin Dane’s universe… or that thing which pretends to be Vin Dane.”
“Great,” Miro chuckled, “I am the unluckiest son-of-a-bitch in the galaxy. I’m trapped in a time with a woman who tried to kill me, my archenemy is the ruler of the universe, and…” he sniffed, “and I’m probably the last Horadrim alive, if that Caal had his way.” He blew out a breath. “Hell of a life.”
Fialla stared at him carefully. After watching him for a while, she answered. “You’re wrong.”
“Yeah. You saved the one gal who knows the future. Vin Dane thinks he’s crushed all opposition… so he won’t see us coming, and we know the Orb can be defeated. And as for being the last of your race,” she gave him a leering glance, “well… I’m sure we can do something to fix that. I killed Miro Creed. From now on, I’m gonna call you Lucky.”
“Lucky?” He gave a disgusted look. “Can you call me something better?”
“Nah, you’re Lucky. If it makes you feel better, I’ll call you ‘lucky’ in Latin.”
“When did you learn Latin?”
She gave him a dead stare. “Trapped in time, remember? Got to do something to pass the time.”
“Fine, I’ll bite. What’s ‘lucky’ in Latin?”
Miro nodded approvingly. “Good name. So we’re going to form the Resistance, you and me?”
“Nah, that name’s pretty used up.” She smiled. “Let’s call ourselves the Tech Infantry.”
Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home, no matter how strong you think your faith is.